Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Galapagos Islands - Ecuador

Booking a trip to the Galapagos Islands is not as simple as it sounds.  There are so many variables to consider.  Our advice to those considering travelling to the Galapagos, is to make sure you do your homework before you approach agencies.
Things to think about are:
  • what islands you want to see 
  • what animals you want to see
  • what length of time you want to spend
  • how you want to get around - land or boat based
  • what class of boat you want to travel on
  • how much are you willing to spend
  • what size group you want to travel with

Once you have all the answers, then we suggest you approach 3-4 agencies and compare what they have to offer against your requirements.  The agencies are often biased to certain boats or itineraries.  Make sure you clearly understand what is and isn´t included in the price and double check the number of days, start and end time of the trip.  Don´t assume anything...this is South America afterall and they do want your money.  Make sure you take plenty of cash (USD is the Ecuadorian currency) as there are limited ATM´s and they charge 22% to use credit cards.

We decided to do a 5 day cruise (which was actually 4 due to the start time of day 1 being 6pm!) and then spend 4 extra days doing land based activities/day trips, by ourselves.
We booked our flights and cruise the day before we flew out in order to get a last minute deal... as it turned out, everyone on our cruise booked last minute too.
We flew from Guayaquil to Baltra (Santa Cruz Island) and returned to Guayaquil from San Cristobal Island.  This reduced the number of ferry trips between the islands that we needed to make - which is a huge plus as the ferry crossings are often very rough and uncomfortable!!!
You can also fly from Quito as well as book last minute deals, but the planes stop off at Guayaquil anyway.

The Galapagos Islands are home to many animals that are found nowhere else in the world.  The animals are extremely relaxed around humans as there are almost no predators.  It is an incredible experience to be able to get so close to these unique creatures.

About a month before we left NZ there was a documentary on the Galapagos on TV.  Unfortunately neither of us had time to watch the whole series but it did increase our excitement about having the opportunity to visit the islands.  We find it hard to understand people who come to Ecuador but don´t take the time to explore these unique islands.  It truely is a life changing experience, and inspires you to think differently about the planet.

Here is an account of our Galapagos Adventure....

We settled into our rooms, were introduced to all the crew and enjoyed our first meal of fresh fish before heading off to bed.  At around midnight we set sail for Genovesa Island in the far north, a 6 hour trip.  We both slept well but several of the others had trouble with sea sickness.
Debbie on the ferry from the airport.

Day 1

Up at 5am to get a taxi to the Guayaquil Airport for our 8am flight.  We had to be there at least 2 hours early to queue up for baggage checks and fee payments prior to the usual check in formalities.  We were like two excited kids - we´d been looking forward to this moment for the last 5 months.  We did have huge expectations of the islands but were also really looking forward to some relaxation and some warm weather after so many months of riding in the cold. 1hr 45 later we landed at Baltra and caught the bus then ferry then bus to the main town of Puerto Ayora.  We had until 6pm before we met our boat and started our cruise.
Ahhh, warm sunny weather.  We couldn´t wait to have a swim in the clear blue waters at Las Grietas - just a 15min walk from town. It was glorious!!!We then walked to the other side of town and visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where they have a breeding programme for Giant Tortoises.  We encountered several species of these Galapagos giants as well as some land iguanas.  It was a bit run down but still very informative and free.

We paid $18 for a taxi that took us back to Baltra and to our awaiting boat - Floreana.  The fellow passengers were 1 English, 4 Dutch, 1 Welsh, 4 Israli, 1 other Kiwi (woo hoo... the first on our trip so far) and us.  The Floreana was by no means flash but we had made our choice on the itinerary not the boat.  We had a cute little cabin with a private bathroom but it was a bit musty.  We were very pleased we had airconditioning, as it was very warm.

Giant Tortoise at the Charles Darwin Centre

Land Iguana

On board the Floreana

 Day 2

We had crossed the Equator and were now in the Northern Hemisphere!  Genovesa Island is home to hundreds of birds and because it is so far north it is infrequently included in shorter cruises.  Hence our reason for choosing this boat.It is the best place to see the Red footed boobie.  They nest here year round and it was amazing to get up close and personal with these birds, their cute white fluffy chicks as well as seeing the eggs.We walked around a small track on the island where we also saw Nazca boobies, Frigate birds, Gulls, Petrels, Finches, Mockingbirds and even the rare short-eared Owl. Then it was time for snorkelling! White sand and clear blue water awaited us - this is what we had been looking forward to!  Hundreds of brightly coloured tropical fish surrounded us as we swam in nice warm water. 

After lunch we had another snorkel - this time a deep water start and along the steep rocky wall of the island.  We swam with sea lions, had pelicans landing and taking off as well as many fish.  After so much cycling it was strange to be stuck on a boat for ´time off/siesta´.  We decided on using this time to do some well needed yoga to stretch out our tight muscles.  It was very therapeutic!

Another island visit-walk prior to dinner was equally interesting with our guide Victor sharing very facts about the birds and the island. After dinner the captain set sail again for our next destination - Santiago Island.  It was a rougher crossing but again we slept well as the boat rocked and bobbed us to sleep.

Red footed Boobie

Frigate and Chick

Male Frigate with his red chest all puffed out

A small lagoon - very warm

Frigate at work making nest

A Galapagos Mockingbird

We saw hundreds of Frigates and Boobies flying around the island

Galapagos sea lion

Hermit Crab

Our quarters for the 4 nights

Nasca boobie

another Red footed Boobie and cute little chick

Heading off to the next island

Day 3

We visited the relatively newly formed part of Isla Santiago - an huge expanse of lava flow only about 150 years old.  It was like artwork.  Beautiful shapes and patterns formed by the cooling and movement of lava.  We were surprised how interesting we found this walk despite it having very few animals.  Closer to the shore we saw many marine iguanas basking in the sun and hundreds of red Sally Lightfoot crabs.  There were so many volcanic cones around the flat topped source of the erruption.

We then took our snorkling gear on the zodiacs over to Isla Bartolome where we had a great time in the clear water.  We saw our first Galapagos Penguin near the end of our snorkel and enjoyed watching a marine iguana chomping away at the green sea weed underwater.

We had company on our lunchtime yoga session this time and others said they would join us tomorrow.We had another snorkel after lunch, with a white tip reef shark and a turtle.
Our last activity was up to a high point at 114m (not quite as high as what we´d been used to climbing!)  The unearthy looking lava landscape gave dramatic views of the stunning surrounding islands and bays.

Great camoflauge

Incredible lava formations

Day 4

We awoke to Sombrero Chino - Chinese hat.  A tiny island where we saw marine iguanas scurrying everywhere as well as just as many sunbathing and sneezing out the salt water from their noses.  We saw more sea-lions, crabs and boobie birds.
We only had one snorkel today.  We were dropped off at one end of a channel between the two islands and the current pushed us through.  We saw a huge sting ray, so many fish and starfish.  

We sailed in the afternoon and saw 2 turtles swimming in the water and a huge sting ray that did a series of somersaults in the air - it must have been being chased by something!  We had another challenging yoga session as the boat rocked us off balance.  

Marine Iguana

A baby sea lion - so cute

.... looking for Mum

our mates from Holland and Wales

Day 5

We had arrived at Isabela Island overnight and had an early 6am walk at Los Tintoreras.  It is a small volcanic island with heaps of marine iguanas, boobies and other birds.  It was a bit cold but we also had a pre-breakfast snorkel.  It was our best yet with playful penguins and sea-lions darting around us.  We also saw stingrays and heaps more fish.  Our waterproof camera leaked today - gutted.  We soaked it in rice, had it in the sun but unfortunately it died.  Thankfully the SD card was not damaged so we still have our photos... but no more camera for the rest of the trip.  Thankfully we still had Debbie´s phone.  Our job after writing this blog is buying a replacement!

Breakfast was even more enjoyable today and it was pancakes... a tradition apparently in Ecuador is to have pancakes on Mondays!

We packed our bags and had one more yoga session before lunch and our last island tour with this group.  We visited the Giant Tortoise breeding centre where we saw tortoise eggs, embryos and varying sizes of tortoise.  We walked around the Villamil Lagoon where we was very pink flamingo and hundeds of Lava lizards.

We said our goodbyes to our group and checked ourselves into a very nice hostel Janet.  We had a big room, hot shower and aircon.  Very happy.  We also booked a daytrip for the following day to Los Tunneles - a popular day trip for great snorkling. We chose the afternoon tour so we could have a run and swim in the morning.  

Day 6

We were happy to be on terra firma! We woke up at 6:30 and headed off for our first run in 5 months!
we had to be careful where we put our feet!!!

 It felt great but we paid for it over the next couple of days.  We ran out to Concha de Perla where there is a boardwalk through the mangroves near the port.  We said good morning to a few sea-lions and then headed back to town and on a coastal road towards Muro de las Lagrimas (Wall of Tears) - a 100m wall of lava rocks built by convicst unter harsh and abusive conditions. 

We enjoyed Janet´s home made bread and fresh fruit salad for breakfast before getting picked up for our snorkling trip. What can we say other than we are 100% sure a boat in NZ would never sail in such conditions.  The seas were rough, the boat had no side windows and the waves crashed into the boat as we clung onto our seats to stop us from getting flung off them.  We looked at each other nervously as the captain waited for the right time to head in through the breakers and into the lagoon where the Lava Tunnels are.  It was a nerve wracking and highly dangerous trip.  Thankfully we made it into the calm waters of the lagoon - all soaked to the bone and cold, before we had even got into the water! It was worth it though - Turtles at last.  Huge graceful Giant Turtles swimming around us.  This was definately what we had waited for!

We had an excellent guide who swam with us and showed us 3 sea horses and took us to some caves where we saw several white tip reef sharks sleeping.  At the second cave they weren´t sleeping!!!! it was a bit scary seeing sharks just 2 metres in front of you - swimming stealthly with their beady eyes.

We had to head back out through the breakers and up the coast to the second snorkling spot.  It was equally as scary as we clung to the seats and each other, getting pelted by waves crashing into the boat.  Brr, we got back into the water and all was forgotten as we saw Giant Turtle after Giant Turtle swimming around or sitting at the bottom of the ocean munching on seaweed.  It was so cool!

They provided a warm rice risotto for lunch before we headed back out to the wild sea.... that hadn´t died down at all.  We patted the captain on the back and thanked him very much when we finally arrived back at Puerto Villamill. 

Day 7

We had a very early morning at 4:50am to catch the early morning ferry to Santa Cruz.  It took 3 hours and was another rough ride.

 On arrival at the island we enjoyed a coffee before running to Tortuga Bay.  It was a beautiful white sandy surf beach where you can walk along it and around a corner to a sheltered lagoon.  We swam out to 2 turtles and walked around the rocky shoreline taking pictures of Blue footed boobies close up, and cactus trees.
We had a swim in the surf before heading back into town to catch our second ferry for the day, this time to San Cristobel.

  It was another 3 hour trip but this time we were wise and chose seats near the back where it wasn´t nearly so bumpy.  These ferries were also bigger and had windows so getting wet wasn´t a problem.

We arrived at the sleepy town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and checked ourselved into Hostel San Francisco for 3 nights.  This was our favourite town on the islands.

Day 8

We decided to explore the island for a land based day.  We hired 2 crappy bikes and snorkel and masks and headed up into the highlands to El Junco.  It was very misty and cloudy up the top but we got glimpses of the coastline and the lake at the summit which is the only permanent fresh water body in the Galapagos.  We rode down the other side and stopped off at Galapaguera.  It is part of the national park and giant tortoises live in a semi-natural condition.  It was the best tortoise viewing we had experienced.

Just a bit further down the road was Puerto Chino - a stunning white sandy surf beach.  They must have tarsealed the road since the Lonely Planet was last written, as it is a beautiful smooth road all the way to Puerto Chino.  We were very pleased given the state of our bikes!

After a wonderful swim and snorkel, we headed back up and over the 700m hill to descent down and head off to Tijeretas - an awesome snorkling spot.  We got there at 5pm and were greated by cristal clear water, curious - almost too friendly, sea lions, 3 turtles and many tropical fish.  We stopped off at Player Mann on the way home to watch the sun set... It was a great end to our day!  

Day 9

We finally found a coffee shop that was open at 8 before heading to our boat to do a day trip to Kicker Rock, otherwise known as Leon Dormido.  It was a beautiful calm day, they sun shone and the sea was smooth.  We were able to sit on the roof of the boat as we motored across to Kicker Rock.  We spent the day snorkling amongst heaps of sharks, turtles, coral, huge shoals of fish, sea lions... you name it, we saw it!There were divers on our boat too and they saw some Hammerhead sharks but they were a bit deep for us to see. It may have been our best day yet!

Before returning our snorkles to the agency, we caught a Taxi out to Loberia beach.  We enjoyed our last snorkle and were surprised how many turtles we spotted swimming around - it was amazing.  Again, we had to watch our step as we walked along the sandy trail!

Day 10 

We were not looking forward to leaving the Galapagos.  We had enjoyed it so much and it really had lived up to our expectations.  We had seen abundant sea and land life, experienced diverse landscapes and had the chance to really relax in warmth and stunning places.

However, more adventures await us.
We enjoyed our last run and swim on the island and walked to the airport, just 10 minutes from town.

We flew back to Guayaquil and here we are - bikes and bags packed and ready to set off tomorrow.

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